Postcard Album: Recycled postcards: art or crime?


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Ten little Santas cut from wrapping paper peer out as deer graze on a generic linen postcard. The Santas' beards and hats are made of unraveled rayon yarn known as bunka. Photos courtesy Barbara Andrews

A friend recently saw several baskets made of postcards at an auction and wondered if postcard collectors were interested in this type of novelty. The answer brings up a major divide between artists who think their art takes precedence and collectors who cherish the ephemera of the past.

Blame Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. 

Early in the 20th century, they took newspaper, wallpaper and other bits of paper and turned them into an exciting new art medium. Today, collage, from the French word for glue, is an extremely popular art form done by both professionals and amateurs. From then until now, collage artists have seen postcards as raw material for their creations.

In the same period when artists were turning to this new way of creating art, postcards were flooding the nation. Our ancestors were thrifty, tending to keep anything and everything that might be useful some day. Fortunately for us, millions of postcards were saved from destruction by this reluctance to throw things away. But not all savers were collectors or hoarders. It was only natural that people who loved to do crafts would look around for materials and find postcards.

In fact, some postcards were designed to have things done to them. There were paper doll cards to cut, cute scenes to color and secret pictures that could only be activated with heat. If these types are scarce today, it’s because many were ruined by people having fun with them.

These destructive activities were aimed at children, but adults could also have fun playing with postcards. Leather cards could be assembled into pillows, and pretty Christmas cards were naturals to use as tree ornaments. Creative types might turn postcards into baskets, purses or découpage objects, like boxes.

Here’s where it gets sticky. Dedicated collectors will feel like weeping if they see wonderful old postcards turned into a lampshade, but collectors of folk art may marvel at the cleverness of the craftsperson who made it.

Is there a middle ground? For one thing, the great majority of people who tucked away postcards from the early 1900s had no idea that they’d ever be valuable. I have to admit that my collection was greatly enriched by both my father’s friends and mine who were glad to get rid of old postcards that had been lying around for years. They had no idea that they were giving me valuables, nor did I, since most of the cards in my early collection had been purchased for a penny or so.

It’s no wonder, then, that artistic people thought of ways to incorporate family hoards of postcards into their arts and crafts.

But what about today? Thousands of examples of collage art can be found online. This is also true for assemblage art, which is the 3-D version of collage. And yes, postcards are still being sacrificed in the cause of art. I have a foot in both camps.  Obviously, I love postcards, but I also do collages and embellish postcards that have nothing to recommend themselves to collectors. It distresses me when I see a really “good” postcard ruined in the cause of art, but billions of postcards have been made in the last hundred years. There is no way that collectors want all of them.

Here are a few simple rules I follow in “embellishing” postcards.

First, they have to be cheap; 25 cents is about my max.

Second, they have to be unpopular with collectors. Black and white art reproductions and unidentified scenes top the list.  I look for cards that are so drab that even a fanatical collector would refuse to buy them. 

Third, what I add has to improve them.  Since I make them for my own enjoyment, this is completely subjective.

I’m not alone as a collector who also enhances otherwise undesirable postcards. A good friend and collector, Louise Northam, now in her nineties, got me started. A creation by Joan Gentry showed me how easy it is to make button-face cards. (It’s also easy to affix buttons to old cards and pass them off as originals, but this is never my friends’ intent or mine.)   It’s an unwritten rule to either start from scratch or use cards that no one wants.

If artists are careless about incorporating valuable postcards into their art, they may feel the results justify it. There certainly is a lively market for folk art, and a basket made of postcards might thrill a collector of primitive crafts.

Postcard collectors may feel regret at the sacrifice, but there are more than enough wonderful cards to satisfy every collector. ?

Barbara Andrews has contributed postcard articles to Antique Trader for more than 35 years. She’s an author of women’s fiction, working on her 50th book in partnership with her daughter. She is available at rockandrews@gmail.com



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More Images:

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This sepia view of a garden has a cutout figure of a woman with a pearl button head and hair made of bunka, a rayon yarn favored by those who create dollhouse miniatures.
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Stamps add to the appeal of a postcard. A black-and-white postcard of a milkman decorated with common U.S. stamps as clothing. Chinese postcards from the 1930s also used cut stamps as clothing.
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Stamps add to the appeal of a postcard. Barbara Andrews used cheap, common stamps to make the otherwise-boring black vase stand out. Since she also collects stamps, she always double checks values to be sure the ones used have only minimum value.

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